Excelling in accelerating

Breaking down Houston's 4 new startup accelerator programs

Houston has seen four new accelerators enter the market this year. Photo by Zview/Getty Images

It's official — 2019 is the year of accelerators in Houston. Four different accelerator programs have announced plans to launch Houston programs this year so far — and they are all bringing something different to the table.

All four of the programs represent global programs or big companies recognizing the potential in Houston, which, according to Yael Hochberg, head of the Rice University Entrepreneurship Initiative, is a key part of the equation.

"When you're talking about a place like Houston, what we need here right now is interest from the outside," Hochberg says. "We need some certification by people from the outside that in fact this is a destination for innovation and entrepreneurship."

Houston's most successful accelerator has been homegrown — right out of the Texas Medical Center. TMCx is on its ninth cohort since it launched in 2014.

Also founded in Houston, SURGE Accelerator had a different fate. It launched in 2011 and closed in 2016. Hochberg says there are a number of reasons for the program's demise including disengaged corporations.

"I do feel there's a lot of opportunity around this, and I don't think we should look at SURGE as some sort of indicator of what will happen to an accelerator in the city," she says. "If anything, I would look at TMCx and look at the potential that we see from that."

The biggest benefit to these accelerator programs, Hochberg says, is the new influx of startups that come to Houston. It's not only the accelerators' cohorts, but just the feasibility of the success and resources available. More startups translates to more investments.

"When you have startup activity and good startups, then money, private investment money will follow," Hochbergs says. "Private investment money doesn't just show up."

But bringing in these programs puts the pressure on the city to focus on the environment it's providing new companies and talent. Innovative companies thrive in major metros with things like protected bike lanes, city living, sustainability — and Houston needs to work on these things, Hochberg says, adding that Houston's ability to boast on its single-family homes is less and less attractive to younger demographics.

Building the city up with these types of infrastructure is going to be key when it comes to retaining these startups that accelerators bring in.

"We can create accelerators from here until tomorrow," Hochberg says. "People will send a couple of people down for two days a week to Houston sit at the accelerator, but they'll keep their company somewhere else and not actually move to Houston. Maybe if you're lucky, they'll open up like a little satellite office. We don't want that."

So, what exactly are the differences between these four new startup accelerators? Here's a breakdown of each.

MassChallenge Texas

Photo via greenstreetdowntown.com

MassChallenge Texas first announced its Houston program in January. The Boston-based accelerator program is currently in its final phase of deciding its inaugural cohort. The program is for early stage companies, and is industry agnostic. Jon Nordby, former director of strategy at Houston Exponential, leads the Houston program as managing director.

Launch: July 2019
Location: Downtown Houston
Number of cohort companies: 25
Length: 6 weeks — July through August
Origin: Boston
Requirements: The program looks for applicants that haven't raised more than $500,000 in equity-based funding and have generated less than $1 million in revenue over the past year.
Equity requirements: None.
Prizes on the line: Free office space, mentorship, and, usually, monetary prizes. (Currently, the organization hasn't confirmed cash prizes for the inaugural cohort.)

Founder Institute

Houston's new Founder Institute chapter has teamed up with Alice. Image courtesy Founder Institute

Founder Institute Houston is the earliest stage accelerator that's not associated with a university. Companies must be in the pre-funding stage of growth, and, while 30 companies will be chosen per cohort, only a fraction will complete the full 14 weeks. The Silicon Valley-originated concept now has chapters in almost 200 cities around the world. FI announced its new chapter in Houston in March after first launching in Austin.

Launch: May 2019
Location: Downtown (out of Station Houston)
Number of cohort companies: 30
Length: 14 weeks
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: Company must be pre-funding.
Equity requirements: 4 percent
Prizes on the line: Cash prizes, discounts, access to worldwide alumni network, etc.

Plug and Play Tech Center

Ahead of entering the Houston market later this year, Silicon Valley's Plug and Play hosted three days of programming surrounding innovation in energy and health care. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Plug and Play Tech Center confirmed they were entering the Houston market earlier this month. The Silicon Valley organization has 30 locations all over the world and plans to open five new locations in the United States over the next six months to a year — one being Houston.

Launch: Fourth quarter 2019
Location: Currently scouting for a location.
Number of cohort companies: 20
Length: Three months, twice a year.
Origin: Silicon Valley
Requirements: The program is stage agnostic, but cohorts are focused on a specific industry. Houston's likely to be health and energy/sustainability, though nothing is set in stone.
Equity requirements: None
Prizes on the line: In-house venture capital opportunities, corporate connections, etc.

Ion Smart Cities Accelerator

The historic Sears building in Midtown will transform into The Ion, a Rice University-backed hub for innovation. Courtesy of Rice University

In April, the city announced that Microsoft and Intel were backing a Smart Cities Accelerator program that would accelerate companies with solutions to some of Houston's key problems. The first cohort will be focused on solutions within resilience and transportation, but each cohort will have a different set of issues. With these rotating themes, every cohort will be different.

Launch: September 2019
Location: Station Houston (then later The Ion, when it opens)
Number of cohort companies: 10
Length: 10 months
Requirements: The first set of companies will be chosen for their ability to solve problems within mobility and transportation in Houston. (Other cohorts will have other topics.)
Prizes on the line: Pilot programs and permanent business from the city of Houston.

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Building Houston

 
 

Auburn University's SwiftSku took first place in this year's virtually held Rice Business Plan Competition, but it was the second place company that went home with over half a million in cash and investment prizes. Photo via rice.edu

In its 21st year, the Rice Business Plan Competition hosted 54 student-founded startups from all over the world — its largest batch of companies to date — and doled out over $1.4 million in cash and investment prizes at the week-long virtual competition.

RBPC, which is put on by the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, took place Tuesday, April 6, to Friday, April 9 this year. Just like 2020, RBPC was virtually held. The competition announced the 54 participating startups last month, and coordinated the annual elevator pitches, a semi-finals round, wildcard round and live final pitches. The contestants also received virtual networking and mentoring.

Earlier this week, Rice Alliance announced the seven student-led startups that then competed in the finals. From this pack, the judges awarded the top prizes. Here's how the finalists placed and what won:

  • SwiftSku from Auburn University, point of sales technology for convenience stores that allows for real time analytics, won first place and claimed the $350,000 grand prize from Goose Capital. The company also won the $50,000 Business Angel Minority Association Prize, the $500 Best Digital Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $401,000. The company also won the CFO Consulting Prize, a $25,000 in-kind award.
  • AgZen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a pesticide alternative spray and formulation technology company, won the second place $100,000 investment prize (awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The startup also won a $300,000 Owl Investment Prize, the $100,000 Houston Angel Network Prize, the $500 Best Energy Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, and the $1,500 Third Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $502,000. The company also won the $30,000 in-kind Polsinelli Energy Prize.
  • FibreCoat GmbH from RWTH Aachen University, a startup with patented spinning technology for the production of inexpensive high-performance composite fibers, won the third place $50,000 investment prize (also awarded by Finger Interests, Anderson Family Fund, Greg Novak, and Tracy Druce). The company also won the $100,000 TiE Houston Angels Prize and the $500 Best Hard Tech Elevator Pitch Prize from Mercury Fund, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $150,500.
  • Candelytics from Harvard University, a startup building the digital infrastructure for 3-D data, won the fourth place $5,000 prize.
  • OYA FEMTECH Apparel from UCLA, an athletic wear company that designs feminine health-focused clothing, won the fifth place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $5,000 Eagle Investors Prize, the $25,000 Urban Capital Network Prize, and the $1,000 Second Place Anbarci Family People's Choice prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $36,000.
  • LFAnt Medical from McGill University , an innovative and tech-backed STI testing company, won the sixth place $5,000 prize and the $20,000 Johnson and Johnson Innovation Prize, bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $25,000.
  • SimpL from the University of Pittsburgh, an AI-backed fitness software company, won the seventh place $5,000 prize. The company also won the $25,000 Spirit of Entrepreneurship Prize from the Pearland Economic Development Corp., bringing the company's grand total in cash and investment prizes to $30,000.

Some of the competition's participating startups outside of the seven finalists won monetary and in-kind prizes. Here's a list of those.

  • Mercury Fund's Elevator Pitch Prizes also included:
    • Best Life Science $500 Prize to Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Best Consumer $500 Prize to EasyFlo from the University of New Mexico
    • Best Overall $1,000 prize to Anthro Energy from Stanford University
  • The Palo Alto Software Outstanding LivePlan Pitch $3,000 Prize went to LiRA Inc. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • The OFW Law FDA Regulatory Strategy Prize, a $20,000 in-kind award went to Paldara Inc. from Oklahoma State University.
  • The Silver Fox Mentoring Prize, which included $20,000 in kind prizes to three winners selected Ai-Ris from Texas A&M University, BruxAway from the University of Texas, and Karkinex from Rice University as recipients.
  • The first, second, and third place winners also each received the legal service prize from Baker Botts for a total of $20,000 in-kind award.
  • The Courageous Women Entrepreneurship Prize from nCourage — a $50,000 investment prize — went to Shelly Xu Design from Harvard University.
  • The SWPDC Pediatric Device Prize — usually a $50,000 investment divided its prize to two winners to receive $25,000 each
    • Blue Comet Medical Solutions from Northwestern University
    • Neurava from Purdue University
  • TMC Innovation Healthcare Prize awarded a $100,000 investment prize and admission into its accelerator to ArchGuard from Duke University
  • The Artemis Fund awarded its $100,000 investment prize to Kit Switch from Stanford University
The awards program concluded with a plan to host the 22nd annual awards in 2022 in person.

If you missed the virtual programming, each event was hosted live on YouTube and the videos are now available on the Rice Alliance's page.

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